Donald John Trump is the 45th and current President of the United States. Before entering politics he was a businessman and television personality. Trump was born and raised in Queens, New York City, and earned an economics degree from the Wharton School.
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Greetings from Earthjustice, reddit! You might remember my colleagues Greg, Marjorie, and Tim from previous AMAs on protecting bees and wolves. Earthjustice is a public interest law firm that uses the power of the courts to safeguard Americans’ air, water, health, wild places, and wild species.
We’re very busy. Donald Trump has tried to do more harm to the environment in his first 100 days than any other president in history. The New York Times recently published a list of 23 environmental rules the Trump administration has attempted to roll back, including limits on greenhouse gas emissions, new standards for energy efficiency, and even a regulation that stopped coal companies from dumping untreated waste into mountain streams.
Earthjustice has filed a steady stream of lawsuits against Trump. So far, we’ve filed or are preparing litigation to stop the administration from, among other things:
My specialty is defending our country’s wildlands, oceans, and wildlife in court from fossil fuel extraction, over-fishing, habitat loss, and other threats. Ask me about how our team plans to counter Trump’s anti-environment agenda, which flies in the face of the needs and wants of voters. Almost 75 percent of Americans, including 6 in 10 Trump voters, support regulating climate changing pollution.
Can you explain how the question of standing affects your litigation? Specifically with something like drilling in the arctic or mining on public lands, how does the question of standing get hashed out in your cases?
Let’s take drilling in the Arctic as an example of how standing works in environmental lawsuits. In order to file a lawsuit, you have to have a personal stake in the matter. In the Arctic drilling cases, our clients are organizations whose members use the Arctic Ocean for fishing or whale watching or a host of other activities that would be harmed if there was a giant oil spill in the Arctic Ocean, one of the worst places in the world to have an oil spill. That potential harm to our clients’ interests is what gives them legal standing to sue. And that legal doctrine allows our clients to hold the federal government accountable for following the law by taking the government to court. It’s an incredibly important and valuable system of checks and balances that forces the government to be accountable to ordinary citizens.
What powers do the executive orders hold? Does an order for a review mean that an agency must take that as a directive? For instance, does ordering review of the clean power plan basically a legal order to end it?
Trump’s executive orders have been all over the map. A few of them have actually done something substantive, like the executive order purporting to reverse President Obama’s withdrawal of most of the Arctic and part of the Atlantic Oceans from availability for offshore oil drilling (about which we promptly sued the president). But many of the other executive orders have looked more like excuses to hold a media event, because an executive order wasn’t necessary to accomplish what the executive order did. For example, last month the president signed an executive order mandating a review of previous presidents’ designation of national monuments. National monument designations are incredibly valuable, so President Trump shouldn’t be questioning them. But all the executive order did was order the Interior Department to do an internal review about the monument designations. The president didn’t need to sign an executive order to accomplish such a review. Heck, he could have had a White House intern call the Interior Department and convey the directive to do the review that way. It’s hard not to read executive orders like that as an exercise in posturing to a small number of anti-monument idealogues.
Could you explain a bit more about how the Trump administration is trying to undo various public protections? Are they declining to enforce federal regulations? or trying to change the regulations?
So far they have mostly been focused on trying to (illegally) reverse pro-environment actions taken by President Obama. Examples of this include their attempted reversing of the federal coal leasing moratorium adopted by President Obama in early 2016, and their attempted to reverse President Obama’s withdrawal of most of the Arctic Ocean and important parts of the Atlantic Ocean from availability for offshore oil leasing. We’ve filed lawsuits against both those Trump administration actions, which violate the National Environmental Policy Act and the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act respectively.
I don't intend this to be a frivolous question, but if an action (say, dismantling the Clean Air Plan) has a negative impact on everyone who breathes, doesn't everyone with lungs have standing? Can a lawsuit be mounted on behalf of human life?
The nature of an environmental dispute can affect the number of people who have standing to sue. For example, a mining proposal that would harm a place that only a few dedicated hikers visit might have a relatively small number of people with standing to sue over it. On the other hand, a wide-ranging proposal to weaken protections for clean air might have a large community of air-breathers with standing to sue.
Do you think anything would happen with this lawsuit, or will it just get added to his already massive pile of lawsuits?
The American system of laws and courts is a wonderful thing. Everyone has to follow the law – I have to follow the law, you have to follow the law, and President Trump has to follow the law. When someone doesn’t, ordinary citizens can go into court and seek to hold them accountable. That’s what we’re doing at Earthjustice to fight back against the Trump administration’s illegal actions. And we will get decisions from the courts on all these cases. The wheels of justice sometimes turn a little slowly, but they do turn. One of the great things about filing public interest environmental lawsuits is that you generally get a ruling, up or down.
Is there a precedent for someone suing a sitting POTUS and winning?
Yes. Probably the most famous example is from the 1950s. President Truman seized the nation’s steel mills because of an impending strike. The mills sued the president over the seizure. The courts ruled that the president acted illegally in seizing the mills and reversed Truman’s action.
When we sue the government, we rarely sue the president as an individual. That’s because the actions we challenge are usually taken by a federal department or agency, so we sue the head of the department or agency. But when the president himself takes an illegal action, we sue him as an individual. President Trump himself took the action to try to reverse President Obama’s protection of most of the Arctic and parts of the Atlantic Oceans from offshore oil drilling, so our lawsuit against that action is League of Conservation Voters v. Trump.
What’s happening with the Dakota Access Pipeline? Are they going to start pumping oil through it soon?
Earthjustice has the great honor of representing the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in its challenge to the Dakota Access pipeline. We’ve moved for summary judgment in our case against the pipeline. The case has been fully briefed for about a month, but the judge hasn’t scheduled a hearing yet, though he may rule without one. We’ve asked the court to vacate the permit for the pipeline to run under the Missouri River at Lake Oahe, which would make the Dakota Access company turn off the pipeline. As for when oil might flow, we don’t know anything more than what Dakota Access has told the media, which is that they intend to start production on the 14th or 15th of May. The case is incredibly important in the fight for Native American rights.
When you take someone as high profile as the president to court, do they actually show up?
When we sue any government official, including the president, they don’t have to come to court personally. They are represented by the United States Department of Justice, which goes to court on their behalf. But the key thing is not whether they have to go to court personally – the key is that they have to comply with the court order, and we regularly get great results for the environment and public health when we sue the federal government and win.
Hello Drew, I am a HUGE fan of Earthjustice - thank you so much for doing this AMA! Can you explain to me how the roles of scientists, lawyers, etc. come together in your projects/lawsuits, possibly via an example?
Many environmental cases involve disputed questions of science or other technical matters. Our team of lawyers works with scientists around the nation to analyze questions from a technical perspective and explain to courts when the government has ignored or flubbed the science in a case. And we’re currently advertising to hire a small number of scientists to join our team – feel free to help us by getting the word out! http://earthjustice.org/about/jobs
What, exactly, are the illegal acts committed by Herr Drumft?
Is this just a disagreement over policy or has the administration actually committed crimes?
The Trump administration is only a little over 100 days old, but it already has a lousy track record of following the law. On issues beyond the environment, it’s hard not to note that the president’s batting record in court (on things like the travel ban) is pretty darn bad. On environmental issues, illegal actions taken by the Trump administration so far include illegally lifting the federal coal leasing moratorium without environmental analysis or disclosure (which we have sued over in federal court in Montana), illegally reversing offshore oil drilling protections in the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans (which we have sued over in federal court in Alaska), and illegally refusing to ban chlorpyrifos, a major pesticide linked to brain damage in children (which we have challenged in the federal appeals court in California). We don’t have rulings in those cases yet, because the wheels of justice usually turn pretty deliberately, but it’s a very discouraging record of illegal, anti-environment action so early in an administration.
Have you considered asking Sally Yates if she'd be interested in joining your team?
I'm sure she'd love to take a few more cracks at this administrations over-reaches. She might do it just for shits and grins.
Sally Yates is a former federal prosecutor, as am I. She was a dedicated public servant and someone who understood and acted on the principle of the rule of law. I have the greatest respect for her and her service to our nation.
EDIT: Fixed a typo
He answered that question before anyone asked it:
>Donald Trump has tried to do more harm to the environment in his first 100 days than any other president in history
Why didn't you sue Barack Obama?
It wasn’t Trump, but Obama, who held the reins of the federal government and did nothing while drinking water contamination poisoned the people of Flint, Michigan.
It was Obama who expanded offshore oil drilling while paying lip service to environmental responsibility in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon spill
It was Obama who signed off on new oil pipelines, approving the construction of the equivalent of 10 Keystone pipelines between 2010 and 2015 alone. Oil and gas shipments by rail continued under his watch.
It was Obama who directed his Department of Interior to attempt to ban fracking on tribal and federal lands while simultaneously taking large campaign donations from the very oil and gas companies involved in fracking. In fact, Obama took in nearly $2 million in campaign donations in 2008 and 2012 from companies that directly benefited from his administration’s focus on the development of domestic energy production, largely from fracking.
So.....why, after 8 years of anti-environmental policies from the previous president are you suddenly pretending to care?
Earthjustice filed hundreds of environmental lawsuits against the Obama administration, including many over the issues you list. For example, we filed a series of lawsuits against offshore oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean, which resulted in the oil industry’s decision to pull out of the Arctic Ocean. And we sued the Obama administration over various oil and gas pipelines, including the Dakota Access Pipeline. There are many other examples of lawsuits we filed against the Obama administration to protect the environment. It’s not unusual that we’re suing the Trump administration over the environment – we do that against every presidential administration. What is unusual about the Trump administration is how bad their policies are for the environment, basically across the board; how swiftly they’ve moved to act against the environment so early in the administration; and how cavalier they’ve been about not following the law as they’ve taken their anti-environment actions.